The best of the UK seaside


Broadstairs, Kent

Broadstairs must be in my blood. My mum’s family has been going there at least since Edward VII was on the throne. We have an old album of photographs of her parents horsing around in what is presumably Viking Bay. In one picture, my grandfather is posing in a woollen bathing suit with a half-crown stuck in his eye-socket as though it’s a monocle. Considering that he wasn’t known for his levity and that at the time it was taken, in the mid-1930s, the economy had gone south and the world stood on the brink of a terrible war, it says something about the restorative powers of Broadstairs.

Viking Bay, the most popular beach, is less than 10 minutes on foot from the train station. It’s a microcosm of the pleasures of the English seaside: a sweep of golden sand, rented deckchairs, chips on the beach — watch out for the predatory seagulls! — and excellent swimming at high tide. At low-tide, a square paddling pool emerges from the waves. It’s so choked with seaweed that I’m not sure it’s a great place to paddle, but it’s an excellent place to look for crabs. At the southern edge of the curved beach there are fairground attractions: swing-boats, bouncy castles, trampolines. The very adventurous can take surfing or stand-up paddleboard lessons. Or you could just sit under an umbrella and practise the card tricks you bought at Wormwolds Emporium of Magic on the way from the station.

When you’ve had too much sun, or if you’re rained off the beach, take refuge in Bessie’s Tea Parlour, where the vintage china and cream teas evoke an atmosphere in which my great grandparents would have felt at home. Fortunately, the food in general has changed beyond recognition. In addition to excellent ice-cream places and great fish and chips, there are a bunch of upmarket restaurants, of which Wyatt and Jones (lunch from £6, dinner mains from £16.50) strikes me as particularly nice. Another possibility is an improving visit to the Dickens House Museum, overlooking the bay. One of its former occupants was the inspiration for the formidable Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. The tiny museum celebrates the novelist’s links with the area. “What larks!” as the great man might have put it.

Stay: The Yarrow is a hotel, restaurant and spa owned by a further education college and run by its students with 23 double/twin rooms. Doubles from £80 B&B

Millport, Ayrshire

During the fleeting Scottish summer, on those rare shoulder-baring days when the temperature nudges up to a level known as “taps aff”, quite a few Glaswegians take themselves off to Millport.

This magical little town is on the tiny island of Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde, 35 miles west of Glasgow. As a treat, it’s fun to travel on board the Waverley paddle steamer with its smart funnels of black, white and red. The more usual thing is to take the little ferry from Largs; the crossing lasts just 10 minutes but imparts a delightful feeling of leaving the world behind; one’s cares dissolve in the milky wake. Do linger long enough in Largs to visit Nardini’s, Scotland’s most celebrated ice-cream parlour, and enjoy some elaborate confection of cherries and wafers and scoops in the grand art deco interior.

Lots of people take bicycles on the ferry, or hire them in Millport. You can cycle around the whole island in a leisurely hour and a half. The best beaches are on the western side, with gorgeous views over to Arran and Bute. It’s much quieter round there, but I’m not sure Cumbrae is really the place for solitude. Millport itself is busy and glorious. Lacking the Miss Havisham sadness of those seaside resorts long jilted by holidaying hordes, it retains the optimistic cheer of a new bride. This town is loved, and knows it.

The main drag faces on to the beach. There’s not much to this strip of sand, but I’ve sat there for hours while the kids mucked about in crab pools or clambered over “Crocodile Rock”, the iconic painted boulder which, for more than a century, has been emblematic of Millport’s gaudy charm.

Eventually, there comes a point when the seals basking just off the beach seem too accurate a mirror to personal indolence, and one feels compelled to rise and move. Not too far, though. Heed the siren call of the Ritz Cafe, a Formica wonderland which appears unchanged since the 1960s. This is the place for chips and milkshakes, proper ballast for the boat home. Stay: Millport Beach Apartments, two airy two-bedroom pads above the Ritz Cafe, overlook the beach. From £95 a night

Bangor, County Down

Bangor was never a holiday destination for me as a child, it was scarcely even a day trip. Bangor was a “run” after dinner on a summer’s evening, the dishes left in the sink, and the six of us – my parents, three brothers and me –piled into the car with the promise of slot machines, crazy golf and a clamber over rocks at the other end.

In the years since, Bangor has done a good job of disguising the fact that it’s a seaside town at all. There are acres of supermarkets and retail parks to negotiate on the approach. Take the wrong slip road off the A2 and you can be out the other side without ever catching a whiff of water.

The train from Belfast is far more pleasant, the track running for much of the journey tight to the southern shore of Belfast Lough. Almost the first thing you will see, coming out of the station, is the Ava Winebar, a Bangor legend and my first (and frequently last) port of call when I started going with friends in my teens.

Half a mile further on, down Main Street, the McKee Clock has for the past century marked the start of the seafront, though where once there was beach (of sorts) beyond there are now the massed masts of Bangor Marina. It boasts five gold anchors, if that floats your own boat. If it’s actual sand you’re after, follow the Seacliff Road the short distance round to Ballyholme. Here, where the road narrows to a single lane between the seawall and terraces of fine stone houses, is the Bangor of those childhood summer evenings, no worse – in terms of visual drama, better – for the clouds gathering on the hills across the Lough.

Never mind a run, or even a day trip. I could spend the week here rightly. Stay: The garden of Splash Cottage backs on to the sea, is set over three levels and sleeps six. From £700 a week

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